Through actor Tim Roth, Mexican filmmaker Michel Franco presents a finely nuanced character study of a man who lives his life poised on the edge of death. Danger is not his issue; it’s mortality itself as he cares for one terminally ill patient after another, becoming deeply embroiled in their emotional lives. Chronic is beautiful, unsettling, eerily still and turbulent all at the same time, and as its many layers unfold, its meaning reverberates more and more powerfully. •Availability: Opens September 23, New York City, with national rollout to follow. Click here for trailer and theater listings near you. • Thanks to Laura Schwab and Carlos Guttierez, Cinema Tropical, for arranging this interview.•
DT: Like your previous films, Chronic explores the psychological states of characters who are living in extreme conditions. Why does that state attract you as a filmmaker?
MF: In terms of the subject matter of Chronic, no matter where you are from or how old you are, the only certainty we have in life is that we’re all headed there. And it’s fascinating, it’s interesting, it’s part of life. It wouldn’t make sense to me to just ignore it. The film came about because my grandmother was ill, in bed for several months. It wasn’t the first death of someone close to me, but it was the first long agony that I saw. Her caregiver turned out to be a very interesting figure.
DT: But there’s dealing with death, and then there’s dealing with death—Tim Roth’s character was in such an extreme situation. Why make it so extreme?
MF: When I watch a movie, I like to see something that’s outstanding for many reasons. That doesn’t mean that everything always has to be radical, but I knew that having Tim Roth as the main actor was a great opportunity to make a strong character study, because only by him playing it could I achieve the different notes and visually avoid clichés, and make something beautiful and painful at the same time. I didn’t want to just make it terrible, and if he was a less talented actor, it would have been hard to find all these different notes.
DT: Tim was the president of the Un Certain Regard jury that awarded you first prize for After Lucia. Is that where you met, and how did it come about that you worked with him? Finally, what was working with him actually like?
MF: He turned out to be an extremely giving person. Through him I learned that even though I wrote the script, there was another way to see it. He was involved not writing but reading every draft. He would also work with actual patients and caregivers and call me almost every day. He was obsessed with telling me the experiences of his day, what he found out. Many of those ideas even went into the script. It was a very interesting process.
We became very close friends, because he really liked After Lucia a lot. Again I’ll use the word obsessed, because he became obsessed with After Lucia. Then, when you look at the film he directed—The War Zone—you can instantly see why we are very compatible.
DT: This is your first English-language film. Why make a film in English, and did the difference in language make a difference in the filmmaking process?
MF: The only reason I made the film in English was to work with Tim. I love him that much as an actor. Chronic was going to be shot in Mexico entirely in Spanish, but when Tim asked me what my next movie was going to be and I told him about this, he said turn it into English and I’ll do it. I jumped on the opportunity, but also because I feel quite comfortable in the States.
It wasn’t about an American dream; it’s not like I’m trying to build a Hollywood career. I would work in any country where I would find an actor I would want to work with, as long as I felt as comfortable as I do in the States.
DT: Both Chronic and Daniel and Ana are based on real events. How does your writing process differ when you’re taking real events as the crux of your story?
MF: In Chronic, the real events with my grandmother were just the inspiration for the screenplay. Everything else is completely fictionalized. The character that would represent the illness my grandmother went through is played by Michael Cristofer, the brain stroke victim. That was my grandmother, but she wasn’t into the sexual episodes that this character goes through. That’s entirely fiction.
DT: Will you ever direct a script you haven’t written?
MF: I’ve written all my scripts. Now I’m writing my fifth, and something very curious happens to me. Even when I’m shooting my own movie or planning it, sometimes I don’t fully understand what I wrote, or I understand that it has more layers than I thought, or an actor, especially if it’s someone like Tim, will enlighten me about something that I’m missing.
That happens when I write the script, so I don’t know about getting someone else’s text and fully making it mine. I guess adapting a book would make sense, because if I adapt it myself, I lend some story to that process, but why bother when I have enough ideas of my own? And I like writing, even if it’s a pain in the neck because you’re alone for two years. That’s true creation. All my favorite filmmakers, like Pasolini, Fassbinder, Bunuel, Bergman, would write their own movies.
DT: One of the storytelling techniques you use in Chronic is the slow reveal, where you disclose elements of the character and elements of the plot little by little. You manipulate that technique very, very well. Can you talk about that process?
MF: When I watch a movie I hate it when within the first ten or fifteen minutes—sometimes even five minutes—I know what’s going to happen throughout the film. I hate those bullshit “how-to-write-a-screenplay” books, mainly because they tell you that you’re supposed to make the audience feel at ease knowing what the hero’s journey is going to be…I even hate those terms. I think films like that are very mediocre.
Come on, make a difference. Films have been made for a hundred years. If you see a film by Lars von Trier or Peter Handke, you don’t know what’s going to happen; if you walk out in the middle, you have no idea what the rest is going to be. I think that’s the commitment you have to have with the audience. I make it out of respect.
DT: You even apply it to the final shot in Chronic.
MF: Absolutely. The final shot might surprise many members of the audience, but then when you stop and think about it, I think it absolutely makes sense. There’s no other possible end to the movie. Or at least when you shake off the surprise of the events, you end up understanding why he did what he did, because the whole movie is building up to that moment.
DT: Talk about your next film, A los ojos.
MF: Los ojos already screened at a few festivals. It’s the first time I collaborated on something with my sister. The actual shooting began in 2011 and lasted almost three years. We shot without a script, without any professional actors; only the main actors were proper actors.
The main actress turned into a real social worker in the process of shooting. The movie is about her trying to help children who live in the streets, homeless kids in Mexico City, but then she goes through a morally hard decision to make: She has a kid that’s sick, and a bad idea comes to her mind. The film is about poverty in Mexico, and it’s about whether you can really help people or we’re just more selfish in the end. Those are the big subject matters of that film.
DT: Is there anything you want to add?
MF: Let’s hope Chronic works out. The only thing I hate about people’s reaction to it is when they keep insisting on how hard it is. You know, come on. We’ve all seen people dying. It’s part of everybody’s life, so it’s better just to try to understand it. That’s my final comment.
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